The Best Restaurants In The French Riviera

The Cote d'Azur's cuisine is a welcome change from meat, butter and cream

With Burgundy's beef bourguignon, Lyon's quenelles de brochet and the Aquitaine's foie gras, it's no wonder why traveling through France can tax even the most insatiable eater.  

Yet geography—proximity to Italy—and climate—mountainous and Mediterranean—have created an anomaly of the Cote d'Azur, the sliver of coastline running from Nice down through the southeasternmost curve of France. Glitzy playgrounds like Saint-Tropez may be best known for their diamond-studded sunglasses and oligarch-owned superyachts, but it's the food scene that really sets the French Riviera apart from other regions in France. Olive trees abound; seafood can go from fish market to restaurant kitchen in an hour; and herbs like rosemary, basil, and lemon verbena bask in unabated sunlight.

One need look no further than Nice's signature salad—chunks of tuna, tomatoes, olives, eggs, anchovies and greens. Pile those ingredients atop crusty bread, as they do at Kiosque TinTin, right outside Marche de la Liberation in the center of town, and you've essentially got pain bagnat, a favorite local sandwich. This area also birthed pissaladière (baked bread dough topped with tomatoes and anchovies), socca (crepes made with chickpea flour) and ratatouille.

How does this lighter touch manifest in restaurants? Dinner at La Pinede, a no-fuss haunt in Cap-d'Ail, starts with sardines and tapenade, continues with sea bass cooked in a salt crust and concludes with raw strawberries so jewel-like they could give even the mightiest mille-feuille a run for its money.

Thanks to a crop of forward-thinking chefs keen to honor the French Riviera's traditions while reinventing them for modern tastes, the Michelin-starred fine dining is also unique. Leading the charge is Relais & Châteaux, a worldwide association of high-end hotels and restaurants whose sustainable-fishing initiatives—including a request that member properties remove bluefin tuna, an endangered species, from menus—and ongoing direct-supply partnerships with farmers and producers have helped turned the Cote d'Azur into a must-hit destination for food obsessives in search of ethical seafood and unsullied local produce.

At Chateau de la Chevre d'Or, a boutique hotel and eponymous restaurant in the tiny village of Èze, chef Arnaud Faye's chicken breast emerges from the kitchen slick not with butter but with pulverized arugula. And at Café du Jardin, Chevre d'Or's casual terrace, Faye's curious, sensational pizzas are topped with seasonal vegetables and, on a recent afternoon in mid-May, with sea bream crudo and lemon zest.

Meanwhile, in the dreamy coastal town of Menton, a multicourse lunch at Mirazur—currently number four on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list—includes only one non-fish main—a sliver of suckling pig, served with a mole and nasturtium sauce as a nod to chef Mauro Colagreco's international background. For dessert: orange sorbet, saffron and almond foam.

Down the coastline at the Monte-Carlo Beach in Monaco, Venetian-born chef Paolo Sari sources ingredients from a 100-mile radius, with much of the fish hailing from nets submerged in the water directly outside the property. At Elsa, Monte-Carlo Beach's 100 percent certified organic, Michelin-starred restaurant (the only restaurant in the world to hold these dual distinctions), dinner kicks off with "All the vegetables and herbs from my garden," as the dish is described on the menu, followed by a hockey puck-size dollop of raw shrimp from Sanremo, which is just over the Italian border; risotto laced with white asparagus; and roast red mullet atop a fava bean purée. 

"Whatever is available, you should serve," Sari muses, as our group gathers around him at U Luvassu Poissonnerie, a generations-old Monégasque fishery that's one of the 24 he sources from. "Whatever the market offers us, we are happy to propose to our guests. And whatever you have, you cook."

Sarah Firshein is a Brooklyn-based editor, writer, and media consultant. Follow her on Instagram at @sfirshein.